HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 8, 2008
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


L.A. Observation One
December 4, 2008

I find that when I'm traveling it's difficult to make comments about specific political or social events. That's because the flood of sensations is so strong all I can do is struggle to keep it from sweeping me into delirious incoherence. So for the next few days, while I'm staying at the Renaissance Hotel near the LA Airport, I'll fall back on what I've seen and what thoughts they have induced.

Every spot on earth has its culture -- human or otherwise. And every culture has a predominant message. The message of where I am right now is that money, if not everything, is so much more important than anything else all other things fall to insignificance. This morning I walked down to the lobby of my hotel and discovered that a cup of Starbucks coffee cost $2.50. I don't know if I'm cheap or just stubborn, but I won't pay two-fifty for a cup of coffee. I went outside and walked a couple blocks to the neighboring Marriott Hotel, where I got coffee for $2.05. That was still too much, but at least the Marriott gave me a comfortable place to sit and drink it which was not the case at the Renaissance. Maybe this is not an earthshaking question but I'm convinced it's more significant than it first appears: why should the Renaissance charge 22% more for a cup of coffee than the Marriott does?

In its concentration on money, the airport culture of Los Angeles is probably more like the rest of America than my little town in Vermont is. American culture, overall, is seriously concerned with money -- more concerned with money than it is with life. In fact, American culture seems to regard the needs of life as an afterthought. That's not true of many Americans, of course, but it is true of the culture they have come to accept. The dominant notion seems to be: "well that's just the way it is; there's nothing I can do about it." Americans can't get it through their heads that they are the makers of their culture. They brag endlessly about being the freest persons on earth, yet they don't believe they can make their own culture. What's free about that?

Four days ago, in the Los Angeles Times, I read a review of Aviad Kleinberg's book: Seven Deadly Sins: A Very Partial List. The author was quoted as writing: "Our professors were institutionally arrogant even if they were personally modest. The university is not an ad hoc gathering of intellectuals but an institution that uses and abuses power." If that's true with respect to institutions of higher learning, which I happen to know it is, then think how much more it's the case with other systems in our culture. The individual person takes on the mode of the system regardless of what his or her personal wishes might be. And in doing so, he surrenders control over his culture.

In a way, Los Angeles is just one big statement: there's nothing you can do about it! And, in another way, that's too bad.


L.A. Observation Two
December 5, 2008

I'm gradually reaching the conclusion that hotel dining rooms are about the worst places to eat you can find. It's not that the food is especially bad. Some of it is okay. And the prices, though higher than they ought to be, are not off the charts. But hotel eating just doesn't feel right.

Last night, we walked down Airport Boulevard a couple blocks from the Renaissance and found a little Greek restaurant on the corner of the street that runs off to most of the rental car lots. And it was just about perfect for our tastes. There was not a single thing elegant thing about it; but there was nothing pretentious either. And avoiding pretension in airport culture and airport hotels isn't particularly easy. The food was good, and priced about right. Both of us got all we wanted to eat and the total price was twenty dollars. That would not have been the case in the hotel.

I'm beginning to think anytime anyone pays more than ten dollars for a meal, something is badly wrong. I know that doesn't fit with gourmet tastes but, then, I don't care about gourmet tastes.

Out the window of my room I look down directly on a Burger King. You can eat there for less than ten dollars, but I can't say I recommend it. I used to have at least a mild taste for fast food of the Burger King sort. With age it seems to have gone away. I'll eat food of that sort, if I'm desperate. But I never feel good afterwards.

If I look sharply to the right out my window I see a big billboard which says, "All Business Class Service -- Los Angeles-Singapore -- Nonstop Daily." The picture shows a young, handsome couple, cuddling comfortably together in their big business-class seats, while a stewardess attends to their needs. I wonder how much that costs. I'll bet there's no paying extra for food on that deal. Think of it: every day a plane flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Singapore, with people lolling back in big seats. They must have something to do in Singapore or else they wouldn't go. But I can't imagine what it is. If I were both rich and a little nuts I might go on that plane to observe what happens. Yet, for the moment it has to remain a mystery to me.

Two blocks from here, towards the airport, tucked in a plaza between big buildings there's a little coffee shop run by a Chinese lady, which serves not only coffee and muffins but pretty good sandwiches also. The average price is $4.50. I ate lunch there yesterday and found my chicken salad sandwich, with a serving of potato salad and a pickle, fairly tasty. The whole bill, with a drink, was $6.15. And no tip was required. I'm pretty sure I liked it better than I would anything I could have got in the hotel.

I realize I'm revealing my plebeian tastes here, but isolated in airport culture, I feel no shame. No one here cares anything about my tastes, or about anything else concerning me. That's a little alienating, but it's comforting too.


L.A. Observation Three
December 6, 2008

Just a couple blocks from my hotel, on Century Boulevard, you can catch a little conveyance called the Ocean Express Trolley, and for three dollars, round trip, be whisked to Manhattan Beach, a small community about eight miles south of the airport. I took the trolley yesterday and strolled around Manhattan Beach for a couple hours.

Towns of that sort are supposed to offer the ultimate in comfort. And, I suppose they do. The beach is fairly wide and, in December, relatively uncrowded. There are dozens of specialty shops selling stuff I can't imagine anyone would ever want. And there are numberless restaurants providing food and service of every variety.

I chose for lunch Nathan's, which I know is a chain but still seemed inviting. I got a melted cheese and turkey sandwich on a bagel, with a cup of cold slaw and a Pepsi. The cost was a little over seven dollars. I sat at a little table against the wall and watched the human flow, in and out. The most interesting person I saw was a young woman, probably in her late twenties, wearing a thigh-length skirt of blue gauze and the most intensely blue shoes I have ever seen. I assumed it was a costume of some sort, but for what purpose I couldn't tell. She was very cheery and the restaurant people seemed to know her.

I walked out on the pier and watched the people on the beach. There was a young man in a tuxedo and a girl in a wedding dress strolling along the edge of the water. Every now and then she had to jump away sharply to keep her dress from getting sloshed. Maybe they had just got married. Who knows? There was a guy at a discreet distance, with a camera, recording their walk.

Manhattan Beach is pleasant but I would get very bored if I had to stay there for long. The notion of lolling on the beach for days on end doesn't appeal to me. Aside from the beach, what is there? Not much.

I hopped back on the trolley, and on the way back to the hotel stopped off at the Manhattan Village Shopping Center. It was like any other shopping center you would be likely to find anywhere in America. Nothing about it made it distinctive to Manhattan Beach or to Southern California. I could bear it for only thirty minutes, until the next trolley came. I got on and was wheeled back to Century Boulevard.

In one way, what I saw was paradise. In another it was like the seeming paradise depicted often in fiction where one finds before too long that he is actually in the realm of eternal damnation. America, too much, is like that to me. I think we ought to do something about it.


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